“You are having a totally different experience than I had last year, because there were like 300 people here,” said Bridgehampton School Board member Lillan Tyree to school board candidates Joe Berhalter, Jo Ann Comfort and Lawrence LaPointe on Monday.
The Bridgehampton School boasts a contested election next Tuesday night, with three candidates including one incumbent vying for two three-year terms on the board. However, just a smattering of community members turned out for the annual “Meet the Candidates” debate and subsequent budget hearing, a decidedly different turnout than last year when scores of Bridgehampton residents showed up in a hotly contested school board race that was viewed by many as an unofficial referendum on whether or not to close the high school at Bridgehampton.
Berhalter, who once led the charge to close Bridgehampton’s high school, is the sole incumbent seeking re-election after Carol Kalish chose not to seek another term. A five-year resident of Bridgehampton, his wife Dolores was born and raised in the hamlet. Berhalter opened on Monday night by saying improved academics is at the forefront of his desire to continue on the board, and that the school has made strides in the right direction.
“I personally think education is the key to success and anything we can do to help that will help the kids, and that really is what my objective is,” said Berhalter.
“My children have gone through the Bridgehampton School for the last 15 years and we found the school to be the place we want to be, the place where we want our children to be,” said LaPointe, who has two graduates from the district as well and a son in fourth grade. LaPointe said he wants to ensure the school is maintained, which is why he decided to run.
A 15-year resident of Bridgehampton, Comfort said that sending her five-year-old daughter to Bridgehampton was once something she questioned, but after experiencing the school’s child-parent program, she realized Bridgehampton had a lot more to offer than she thought.
“The board has done a great job of getting it this far and I would like to keep the forward momentum going,” she said.
Change, the big issue in last year’s board race, was addressed in terms of expanding the district by allowing out-of-district students from the Springs School District, into the Bridgehampton School. Springs School is asking its residents this month whether they would like their high school children to have the option of attending Bridgehampton or Sag Harbor, in addition to East Hampton.
LaPointe opened the discussion, noting it is a big issue, particularly when it comes to the budget and how the school itself handles the increase in the number of students.
“I definitely think the school has room to build on the student population, but how we do that is a big issue,” said LaPointe, who advocates the district reaching out to families in Bridgehampton whosend their students to private school elsewhere.
“My personal feeling is yes, I do support it,” said Comfort, noting Bridgehampton has room to take students. The children in Bridgehampton would benefit from additional students, she added, and students from other districts could thrive in the small school environment Bridgehampton offers.
“Obviously it would be helpful to have more students in the school and also the teaching style we have is unique in this area and there are a lot of students in other districts that would benefit from our teaching methods,” said Berhalter who added that there are students at Bridgehampton who would similarly benefit from being in a larger environment.
“I think the whole concept of choice is a great thing for our school,” he said, later adding the school has 140 students with space for 250.
LaPointe later said he would like to work with residents in Bridgehampton to reach out to in-district families, noting the cost of tuition at many private schools has gone up, while at the same time so has the reputation of the Bridgehampton School.
“We should look to residents of this town to participate more in the school,” he said, adding programs like the Landscape and Environmental Design course will attract families to Bridgehampton.
Comfort advocated for regular open houses, inviting members of the community into the school so they can see the progress the school has made.
Berhalter said the more academic success and top flight colleges Bridgehampton graduates attend, the easier it will be to draw in those residents.
“Over the last several years, we are improving, so we are doing the right things, but it takes time to build that up,” he said.
Comfort founded the Bridgehampton School Foundation, which is raising money for a greenhouse for the school’s edible garden, and she advocated for expansion of the school’s garden to contribute to its cafeteria.
“It’s teaching them the basics of how to grow their own food,” she said. “The more we can teach the kids you can make a salad instead of macaroni and cheese, the better off they’ll be.”
“Being a vegan, it’s a pretty easy answer for me,” joked Berhalter, although he cautioned he would hate to see a charter school-like education at the expense of rigorous academics.
LaPointe agreed with both Berhalter and Comfort, supporting the expansion of the edible garden.
Comfort also supported the expansion of the Career Academies, which spawned the Landscape and Environmental Design course at Bridgehampton, although she would like to see what students are interested in before honing in on the next career focus.
Berhalter disagreed, supporting the notion in larger districts, but concerned in a small district like Bridgehampton it could be used as a substitute for strong academics.
“I think it is a great tool,” said LaPointe, noting it opens up Bridgehampton to other students interested in that educational style.
Voters go to the polls Tuesday, May 18 from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Bridgehampton School.